Maccabiah opens with fanfare in Ramat Gan

Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Jason Lezak lights flame in front of more than 30,000 people.

netanyahu maccabiah 248 88  (photo credit: Channel 1)
netanyahu maccabiah 248 88
(photo credit: Channel 1)
Thousands of Jewish athletes and more than 25,000 supporters filled the National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Monday night as the 18th Maccabiah Games officially got under way in a riot of color and music. Over 5,000 international sportsmen and women put on a striking illustration of unity, from the 900 members of Team USA, to Uruguay's lone participant. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu looked on from the VIP section, clearly delighted at the stunning show of solidarity by Jews from the Diaspora. "Our brothers and sisters from every continent, from North America, from Europe, from Africa, South America, from Asia and from Australia, you come here representing 65 different countries, but above all, you represent one united nation, the nation of Israel," Netanyahu told the athletes to loud applause. "I thank you for coming, I thank you for participating, but I ask you to do one more thing. I ask that you make aliya, not just for the Maccabiah - come and be one of us, every day of the year." "To those of you who haven't learned Hebrew yet," he continued, switching to English, "I say, welcome to Israel! This is your country, this is your home. So enjoy the games, and then come back and make aliya." Peres arrived moments before the delegations themselves, driven into the arena in a black limousine, led by a motorcade of eight policemen on motorbikes. The president was greeted by Maccabiah 18 organizing committee chairman Itamar Herman and members of the Maccabi World Union, including MWU chairman Jeanne Futeran. The delegation procession began with the four-member team from Uzbekistan, followed by Austria and Australia. As each group marched into the arena they were greeted by loud cheers from the sections of the crowd containing their countrymen. The actual sporting events may have begun on Sunday, but Monday's elaborate event represented a fitting launch for the games, said to be the third largest sporting event in the world. Many of the athletes danced into the stadium, including the samba boys and girls from Brazil and the hundreds of Australians who were greeted with the traditional shouts of "Aussie, Aussie Aussie, oi, oi, oi." A huge shout of "Am Yisrael Hai" came for the host nation, led in by Olympic bronze medal-winning windsurfer Shahar Zubari, who took home Israel's only medal at last summer's Olympics in Beijing. But the loudest cheers came at the end of the procession, when Olympic gold medalist swimmer Jason Lezak marched into the stadium bearing the US flag. Four elite Israeli athletes then carried the flame into the stadium, starting with 1970s Israel swimming team captain Daniel Brenner. The flame was then handed to gymnast Alex Shatilov, who represented Israel at the Beijing Olympics last year. Paralympic swimming medal winner Inbal Pizaro took the flame, passed it to Israeli rowing champion Yasmin Feingold, who then gave it to Lezak. The proud Jewish swimmer lit the torch to gasps of excitement from the crowd. The flame will stay lit for the next two weeks as the top Jewish athletes from around the world battle it out in over 30 sports - from futsal to fencing, softball to squash, taekwondo to table tennis. The sporting events may have already started early Sunday morning, but the colorful and noisy opening ceremony was a fitting beginning for the so-called Jewish Olympics. The traditional march-in of the delegations took over an hour as the 7,000 athletes at this year's Games proudly strode into the stadium to cheers of support. While the majority of the delegations were led in by heads of the countries' Maccabi unions, one of the most famous participants was former Manchester United and England soccer star Sir Bobby Charlton, who walked in front of the 516 British athletes. After about an hour, the procession finally ended with the Israelis. The opening ceremony was one of the most spectacular ever put on by the Maccabiah in the 77-year history of the Games. The evening begun at 8:30 p.m. sharp in a style reminiscent of last summer's Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, when a young boy cycled onto the center stage against a background of soft classical music. As he rode around on stage, images of past Maccabiah Games flashed behind him. He was soon followed by dozens of bikers with lights flashing on their wheels. The cyclists circled the stage as Israeli pop star Shiri Maimon strode across onto the center stage, dressed in a long white dress with a white feather boa singing the classic song "Chai". Suddenly sparklers lit up the entire stadium as hundreds of blue and white balloons were released into the air above Ramat Gan and the song culminated in an explosion of fireworks. Hundreds of teenage members of Maccabi worldwide marched in their uniforms before Prime Minister Benyamin Netanayahu introduced to the crowd. Once all the delegations had taken their places there was a poignant moment. A shofar sounded and Australian ten-pin bowler Josh Small read the Yizkor remembrance prayer in memory of those - including his father Greg - who died in 1997 when a bridge collapsed over the Yarkon River while they were waiting to enter the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah. One of the greatest Maccabiah participants ever, basketball player Tal Brody, led the participants in the Maccabiah oath. In his address, Maccabi World Union president Jean Futeran thanked Israel for hosting the Games. "People of Israel, 7,000 hearts from six continents thank you for the welcome you have given us," she said. "Despite the troubled times, you, we, arrive together for these great moments of sports. Together we stride forward proud in our tradition, celebrating the life of our tradition. Am Israel Chai." Peres later told the participants and crowd of supporters: "The Maccabiah is a festival for the whole of Israel. Participants of the Maccabiah, you are a blessing for Israel. You are an example to us all." As the ceremony drew to a close, Peres officially opened the Maccabiah, and a colorful fireworks display ensued.